BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - The Union College men's basketball team kicks off their 2013-14 season this week, and expectations are high for the Bulldogs and second year head coach Kevin Burton.
Coming off a 15-14 season (8-8 in the AAC) it what could be called a transition year for the team, Burton now believes he has molded the program in his own way with a year of experience under his belt on campus.
"I would classify this as my first traditional recruiting class that I've had since I've been here," said Burton, who is entering his 13th season as a collegiate head coach in 2013-14. "Our talent has been upgraded. The difference between our second best player and our 14th best player is very, very small, and that has changed daily."
The Bulldogs return seven players from a season ago, including three who saw a majority of starts during the 2012-13 campaign.
Leading the way will be senior guard Tarik Smith, who ended the season last year as Union's leading scorer, averaging 16.8 points a contest. For his efforts, Smith was the lone Bulldog to be named to the All-AAC team in 2012-13.
Along with Smith, Union hopes to get a full season from junior forward Deante Johnson in 2013-14, after the sophomore missed the first half of last season. However, in just 10 games (eight starts), Johnson averaged 18.1 points a game, 9.9 rebounds a contest, and blocked 11 shots, as he scored 20 or more points in six times. Burton expects both Smith and Johnson to improve even more this season.
Elsewhere, forwards Tyler Wagner and Archie Adams also return to the line-up. Wagner, a junior, made 15 starts at the position last season, averaging 13.2 points a contest, while nailing 46 three-pointers. Adams, a senior, started in 22 games last season, averaging 10.3 points a game, while snatching a team-best 7.8 rebounds a contest.
Rounding out the group of returnees are sophomore guards Kyle Bush and Sean Brown, along with junior guard Daniel Munkholm. Bush took over the reigns at point guard late in the season last year, making a start in the Bulldogs' last eight games at the position. Brown appeared in 15 games, while Munkholm logged playing time in 12 contests.
The rest of the Bulldogs' roster is made up of incoming freshman or junior college transfers, totaling 10. Burton is excited about the entire group, especially his incoming freshman class of guards Michael Bueter and Dalton Whitney, along with forwards Nay Walker and Garrett Newby.
The other newcomers are all of sophomore or junior eligibility, as they have transferred into the program from other schools.
Burton expects big things from sophomore guards Tashan Hairston and DeAntray Stevens, but both will not see playing time until the beginning of the new year. Burton also expects juniors Fitzgerald White (a 6-7 forward) and Stewart Washington (a 6-3 guard) to also contribute from the start for the Bulldogs.
Union is scheduled to play 29 games on the season, 18 of which will be played within the Appalachian Athletic Conference. The Bulldogs were slated to finish fifth in the league in the Preseason Coaches Poll.
The Bulldogs open the 2013-14 season on Tuesday night, hosting Boyce (Ky.) in an out-of-conference tilt. It's the first of 11 out-of-league showdowns the Bulldogs will have on the slate, featuring games at Cumberlands (Ky.) on Dec. 14. The Bulldogs will also play in two invitationals, the Kentucky Christian Super 8 Classic on Nov. 14-15 and the Zweifel/Pritchett Classic at Asbury (Ky.) on Dec. 6-7.
Union opens AAC play on Nov. 9 at home against Point (Ga.), the first of six conference match-ups in November and December. In the month of January, Union has seven home games, four of which are conference tilts. Things change, however, in the final month of the season, as the Bulldogs hit the road for five of their last six games, hosting only Bryan (Tenn.) on Feb. 19.
The season concludes at the 2014 AAC Tournament, which will be played for the second straight season at the Marriott MeadowView Hotel and Convention Center in Kingsport, Tenn, running from Feb. 26-Mar. 1.
To view the full Union men's basketball schedule, click here.
Overall, expectations are high for the Bulldogs coming into the season, as Burton looks to an experienced core, and a few newcomers to take Union to the top of the AAC at seasons end.
"I like the diversity of the team," said Burton. "We can play fast, we can play slow. We can play big and long, we can play short and quick. We have a nice diverse group. Overall, I think our expectations for team success are much higher than they were a year ago at this time."